There is always the danger that the big game last weekend between Manchester City and Chelsea will be remembered more for what happened in the closing stages than for the masterful display that Conte’s Chelsea put in. Fellow super-coach Pep Guardiola paid Conte the ultimate compliment going into the match, setting up his expensively assembled team with three at the back and looking to match Chelsea’s system like-for-like. The result of the match, a resounding 3-1 defeat may suggest that it didn’t work, yet up until the point that De Bruyne rattled the crossbar when it looked easier to score early in the second half; it looked like City who were going to take the spoils.
The switch in system did however leave Guardiola’s side vulnerable to the counter attack; something which the Catalan admits can be a weakness of his tactical approach. From a position where they should have been 2-0 up, less than quarter of an hour later they found themselves 2-1 down to a team so well-organised defensively that it hardly concedes. Eden Hazard put the icing on the cake in the final minute before Aguero’s x-rated tackle sparked off the histrionics that we saw in added time.
The result affirms that Chelsea’s title challenge needs to be taken seriously. Eight wins in a row and only two goals conceded is ominously good form and their win at the Etihad has seen them seize the initiative going into the hectic festive period. They now face a run of relatively winnable fixtures until they travel to White Hart Lane in the first week of the new year.
This wasn’t the first time this season that City’s title credentials have been called into question; from being hailed by many as the clear champions in the opening weeks, the defeat at White Hart Lane in early October and subsequent dropped points at home against Everton, Southampton, Middlesbrough and now Chelsea are starting to raise serious doubts about whether Guardiola will be able to sweep all before him as he has done previously in Spain and Germany. Only once in his seven seasons as a top line manager has Pep failed to win the league; yet could this be his second? Upon his appointment many suggested, most notably my wife(!), that Guardiola may not be quite as good as everyone seems to think he is. At Barça he inherited not so much a golden as platinum-level generation of players that simply needed nurturing and the beginning of the end of that great side was brought about by the head coach’s tactical over-thinking.
At Bayern he took over a side that had just won the treble playing a thrilling counter-attack based style in a league where the only team that had come close to overtaking them, Jurgen Klopp’s brilliant Borussia Dortmund side, was heading into decline as a result of the break-up of the side sparked by Bayern and others cherry picking the best talent. While winning the league each season could probably be seen as par-for-the-course in Munich, failure to repeat what Heynckes had done and lead the highly talented team to Champions League glory, hinted at weaknesses in Guardiola’s football philosophy.
The Premier League presents a challenge like no league in the world, it isn’t a league dominated by one or two teams but one where every team carries a threat and will fight for every single point. The relative lack of tactical sophistication and nuance of the Premier League is in many ways exactly what makes it so exciting. The high-speed, end-to-end nature of the game in England must seem like a world away from the more organised and tranquil nature of the continental game.
Guardiola’s philosophy is based completely on having the ball; dominating possession and working intensely to recover it on those occasions when it is lost. This is as much to cover for defensive weakness as attacking intent. There is increasing evidence to suggest that the possession game is dying out, Leicester won the Premier League and Portugal the Euros by conceding possession and attacking on the counter, even the new incarnation of Barcelona under Luis Enrique is founded on better defensive organisation and a more vertical game based on the sublime attacking talents of Messi, Suarez and Neymar.
There also appears to be a lack of flexibility in Guardiola’s tactical approach with players being shoehorned into roles that don’t necessarily suit them; and while he professes a tailored approach for each opponent, there is scant evidence to suggest that these variations have reaped too many benefits: the hasty reversal of his decision to go 3 v 3 at the back against Barcelona on his return to the Nou Camp in 2015 and Saturday’s failed attempt against Chelsea, provide two obvious examples.
It may well be that, given time to develop his players and approach, Guardiola will elevate Manchester City to the level of the elite European superpowers; it just seems that at the moment becoming the top team in England may not be quite as straightforward as it first seemed.